Major gets to meet India's rich and poor

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR yesterday saw the two faces of India. In the morning, he stepped gingerly over sewers in the alleys of a slum inhabited by outcast families of Untouchables, while in the evening he dined under chandeliers with Bombay's richest industralists.

On his visit to shantytowns in the textile town of Indore it may have been easy for Mr Major to forget the main purpose of his five-day Indian sojourn, which was to sell India on British exports. With more than 40 per cent of its 870 million population living in poverty, there seems little, if anything, British that these Indians could afford to buy.

'It's been quite a day,' Mr Major remarked wearily. At a slum infirmary, built with British aid money, he had cradled an infant's head and put a drop of penicillin vaccine on his tongue.

Mr Major's interest in the Indore slums was proprietorial. Through the Overseas Development Agency, Britain gives about pounds 70m to help improve the lives of India's poor in the cities, of which pounds 14.4m goes to Indore, north of Bombay. Mr Major wanted to see the schools, sewers and roads Britain is putting in to the slums.

But not all Indians live in slums like those Mr Major saw yesterday as he peered at hungry faces inside the dark, cramped huts whose floors are made of hardened cow dung. India has a middle class of 250 million people, and its newly liberalised economy is seen by Mr Major as a prospective market for UK goods and expertise.

During his visit, GEC Alsthom was awarded a pounds 140m contract to build electricity grids. British Gas is entering into a joint venture worth pounds 100m. 'These and other deals which I know are in the pipeline will bring employment and new technology to India, and jobs and continued exports to Britain,' said Mr Major. He flies today to Oman and Saudi Arabia on his way to the UK.

In Bombay, the city's inhabitants seemed too immersed in their communal vendettas to notice his arrival. As his motorcade drove through India's financial capital, riots flared in two outlying suburbs. The army finally intervened, but by then a religious shrine had been torn down, giving a motive for revenge once the troops leave.

Small and deadly brushfires of sectarian violence have been flaring up all over India since Hindu fanatics demolished a mosque in the north last December. Privately, Indian businessmen speak bluntly about the dangers facing foreign investors sizing up the colossal Indian market.

Right-wing Hindu extremists are stoking communal hatreds and trying to force the resignation of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao. His Congress party governs with a fragile minority, and he may have to sacrifice his economic reforms to remain in power.

Before the religious strife, he had intended to liberalise the economy even further in the upcoming 22 Febuary budget. But the left-wing parties propping up the government will not back Mr Rao unless he slows the pace of his reforms. Without the left, the beleaguered Prime Minister cannot survive a no-confidence motion already threatened by right- wing Hindu politicians.

NEW DELHI - Boris Yeltsin arrived yesterday on the first visit to India by a Russian leader since the Soviet collapse, AP reports.